American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression Panel on Censorship and Freedom Post-911

As captured with a palmtop keyboard by Shel Horowitz, I have not cleaned this up other than to correct my own spelling errors. This is not a verbatim transcript but probably represents about 80% of the discussion.

Panelists: Barbara Kingsolver (BK), novelist and essayist
Nat Hentoff (NH): civil liberties columnist for the Village Voice
Michael Moore (MM), author of Stupid White Men, director of Roger and Me
John R. (Rick) MacArthur (RM), publisher of Harper’s and author of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the gulf War

BK: I have discovered in recent months that booksellers and librarians are the greatest advocates of free expression. I’ve never considered myself an expert on issues of freedom of expression, other than as an advocate, and that’s what got me into this mess (press trashing). I have never had any problem w/ anyone disagreeing with what I have said. I fully expect that, expected more of it throughout my career. I wrote a book that was roundly critical of US Policy in Africa and it was a best-seller for two years. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Writers can be censored in another way, by being misquoted, distorted, having their views turned upside down and having people attach for what I hadn’t said. I said “I take issue with violent men (who used the flag as motivation]. Being a US citizen means embracing diversity, embracing conversation. If someone wants to call that a stream of poison, that’s fine. But if someone wants to extract the idea that I hate America, that’s a lie. It was a deliberate misquote: the first part, the question mark, and the sentence following it (that gave context) was left off. An attorney looked at this and said it was libel, asked the Wall Street Journal for a retraction. Their lawyer said we can see that she didn’t say exactly that, but she probably said something else we don’t like.

Perhaps because my image has been so squeaky clean up to now, it took a tabloid approach, it was all over the country, and I got mail from schoolchildren saying how bad I was.
This was censorship by stealing-my voice was stolen. I’ve done some research since then and found this was done a lot in the 1950s. I wrote some letters to the ABA; you guys were great. I really appreciated the support, and the letters that say “we put them in the front of the store.” Readers in this country are smart people; they didn’t buy it. In the month after a boycott was suggested, I sold more than in any one-month period in my life.

But this hurt my family. It was not a good thing to go through. If you see the security I have to travel with now, this is not a good thing.

MM: [book almost shredded, called demented, obtuse and juvenile]
Harper Collins printed 50,000, finishing on September 10. My wife and I were in LA for the Emmy awards (our show was nominated). We couldn’t get hold of our daughter in NYC, finally got a line to a woman on the 17th floor and heard the tower fall. One of our line producers went into the south tower. I talked to my editor the next day and said I don’t feel like doing a book tour, He screams and drops the phone because a bomb threat in the building.

After a few weeks, I called back and said what to you want to do, and he said ‘we need to talk.’ Those four words never mean what they say. It’s they need to talk, we need to bend over. They said, “we believe this book is out of touch, the political climate has changed, the harsh attacks on Bush will ruin you. We think of ourselves as the 911 publisher. We’d like you to rewrite 50%, tone it down, remove the reference to ‘coup’ for the Y2K election. Remove ‘kill whitey,’ Whitey is not the problem.” I said whitey is always the problem. “We can’t publish the letter to Bush asking if he’s a felon, drunk, or illiterate.” I said I’ve been at least two of those things, it’s not a personal attack. “And we’d like you to pay us $100,000 to pay for the reprint.’

I said I’m not rewriting 50% of one word and I’m not giving you fifty cents. I get that it’s owned by Murdoch, but they publish Barbara [Kingsolver], they publish Jim Hightower. I said this is still the United States of America. We don’t fight for our freedom by reducing our freedoms at home. “Well, will you think at least about changing the title?” I said OK, my new title is Bring Me The Head of Antonin Scalia. “That’s not the title we were looking for.”

He said I could update the book after 911. I proposed a new chapter called The Sad Saga of Bin Cheney and Bin Bush. “That’s not the chapter we were looking for.” November 30, I got a call from the editor, “Things are not looking good. We’re going to have to pulp the book.”

Look at the silver lining-this shows how far we on the left have moved the political agenda. Even now, the oppressor thinks of recycling.

Screw Mike and save the trees. I was depressed that night, woke up the next morning to give a speech to New Jersey Citizen Action. I said I don’t feel like giving this talk, I learned last night they’re going to pulp my book. I’d like to read a couple of chapters because you may be the only people to hear those words.

Nobody should ever have to say that! This is not the government, it’s corporate America, the shadow government that runs the show. In the back of the room is a librarian who goes home and goes on the Internet, to librarian chat rooms. She writes up a letter and they put it out to thousands of librarians, write to Harper Collins, don’t ban the book. Two days later, I get a call, “What did you tell the librarians? We’re getting hate mail from librarians.” I didn’t know any of this was going on.

Of course librarians are furious! They’re the first to get cut, they’re pasting 40-year-old books together with scotch tape. A few days later, “ok Mike we see what you’re up to, we’re going to put your book out. But don’t be disappointed when it doesn’t do well, the climate has changed. Here’s your three city tour: Ridgewood, NJ, Arlington, VA, Denver.” I said, is this the Bataan Death march of author tours? We organized the real tour ourselves. Harper Collins did nothing, no major media, we had to do it out of a minivan and get TV shows to fly us out.

Last week they said I could go on Today show if a right wing author went also. The 3-city went to a 40-city tour and it’s done incredibly well. It’s they who are out of touch with the American people. 7000 showed up in Tampa, 4000 in Portland, 1500 in Grass Valley, CA. People were sick and tired of being told for 6 months, shut up and don’t question. Part of the requirement of being a citizen of this country is to question. We live in a liberal progressive country, [although] they wouldn’t describe themselves that way. 85% support protecting the environment, 58% support choice [quoted several similar statistics.

RM: Just before Afghanistan: “This will be the most censored war in history.” Because the Pentagon announced this. You could feel the drumbeat and all the people who spoke up in favor of freedom in the press in the gulf war lined up on the side of censorship. Bob Kerry would have been a lot better off with his Navy Seal unit if a reporter had been along. The press have abdicated their 1st Amendment rights. Not one reporter has been able to witness combat involving American troops. Our side does not have geniuses, the side that wants to give the American people the right to change their mind. You can’t change your mind if you don’t know how the war is being conducted in your name.

In terms of intimidation, the greatest danger is still self-censorship. Michael [Moore] was able to beat corporate censorship and I applaud him. The problem is lack of determination by authors. There is a great deal of fear among writers, reporters, publishers of being on the wrong side, at the wrong time.

NH; Jazz is the life force, directly connected to free expression.

Bush-Ashcroft war on terrorism is also a war on human rights. Librarians are prime targets. The USA Patriot Act allows the FBI to give court orders to librarians and booksellers to find out what books suspects read or buy. Terrorism is defined as influencing the government by intimidation or coercion. Once the agent comes and gets the list, there is a gag order imposed that has never been more sweeping. You cannot call the press. The press has no way of knowing and can’t get it overturned. All you can say is I’d like to talk to your counsel. What happens when there is a court case challenging the gag order? It is likely that the court session will be prohibited from being disclosed. Where is the press? I’ve only seen two or three stories.

If you folks started writing letters to papers, you might get some editorials.

Magic Lantern under the Patriot Act. Several Congresspeople said we know there are violations but we didn’t want to be called unpatriotic.

Sneak and Peek section. Under J Edgar Hoover, agents would come in when you weren’t home and take what they want. [back again]. They go in with a warrant, used to be you had immediate notice, now they don’t even tell you for 90 days. Magic Lantern is put into your computer and records every stroke you make. They come back again and download the record. This is, to say the least, a chilling effect.

In the first wiretap case, there was a wonderful dissent by Louis Brandeis that this was a 4th amendment violation. Brandeis noted that there would come a day when they wouldn’t even have to go in. Magic Lantern works as a virus, they can do it long distance. Most Americans don’t know anything about it.

Insofar as Ashcroft, Bush thought about this, they knew that most Americans-because of dreadful lack of education on this-do not know their rights and liberties under the constitution. So when you ask do you trade your liberties for security, you get an overwhelming yes. So I’d hope booksellers would [push books that change this perception].

Matt Rothschild, The Progressive. [reported on a]16 year old high school student who wanted to go and demonstrate against School of Americas. and lobby against US aid to Colombia. She was in a peace action group. They were all pulled aside and questioned by sheriff’s deputies in Milwaukee. They were part of the No-Fly List, run by a former FBI agent. A deputy said you’re going to protest the government, that’s why you were pulled over. Others were Hispanic. They missed their flight, they missed most of the protest activity. We’re going out to use our democratic rights and we’re detained. And we’re telling young people that if you use nonviolent peaceful methods your message will be heard-but you don’t let them get on the plane.

Where is the press on the USA Patriot Act? I haven’t begun to tell you some of the other parts of it. A gag rule, in my business, is the cardinal sin. There’s a presumption against gag rules. You might start asking why. press release detailing the 1st Amendment problems released on 6 month anniversary of Patriot Act.

Questions from the Audience

I own a bookstore in Vermont. When he came to VT, we put up a sign saying come tell George Bush, Sr. what you think of him. We got an immediate visit by the FBI. We refused to take our sign down. We went to the newspaper. We got a very good turnout. (Nancy Braus, Everyone’s Books, Brattleboro, VT).

NH. Even apart from the government, your privacy is shredded every day on the Internet.

Audience: ZoneAlarm will notify you when someone tries to gain access. Get virus program and update regularly

Has the foreign press been to the war?

RM: They’re trying more than ours, but they’re getting beaten up too. The Spectator, a right-wing Tory UK publication, published a great piece complaining that one reporter who wrote a critical story was banned from the AFP. This is Colin Powell’s army, which really hates the press. A Washington Post reporter tried to go to an Afghan village to report on civilian casualties and he was held at gunpoint by an American soldier who wouldn’t let him in. The British and French press, which you can get online, has been much more aggressive but has similarly been censored. The US learned the censor model from the FalklandsWar.

Hentoff: Washington Post had a story about an Al Quaida prisoner who wouldn’t talk. They are shipped to Egypt or elsewhere, where there are methods of making them talk. Amnesty International came out with a dense report on Guantanamo If this is going to go on, I’d like leads. The Washington Post won’t give me the info.

Rick: Fighting censorship is good business, as you see from Michael and Barbara: I suggested to O’Reilly Factor that he put the Bill of Rights on the screen instead of the flag. He didn’t resonate and I got 100 hate mails. If in your community it resonates, you can make hay and sell a lot of books.

Mike. There’s a lot of questions about 911. What are the connections between the Bush and Bin Laden families? You can read it in the New Yorker, Harper’s, buried in the New York Times. It’s an incredible story of how the Bin Ladens helped to fund George W. Bush’s first oil venture in 1979. Carlisle Group had Bin Ladens on the board until November.

We gave $100 million to Taliban in humanitarian aid. Go to Google and type in Texas and Taliban. They wanted to build a pipeline. Haliburton (Cheney’s company) was going to visit. Enron was gong to fund it. We have a right to know why Bush flew 24 members of the Bin Laden family out of the country a week after 911.

Nat: That flight was arranged by the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Why not get booksellers and publishers to do a new edition of the constitution, highlighting the bill of rights and
giving some of the stories behind them. Give them out free in bookstores.

Mike. I am writing the 911 chapter as an online addition, giving it out free. They don’t want the press looking into this. When you look at the list [of objects that can’t be taken in airplane carry-on bags], ask why you can bring a butane lighter and matches but not crochet or knitting needles. And you can’t smoke on the plane so why do you need the matches?

A Congressional aide told me they were on the original list and the tobacco industry lobbied to remove them. This is not about our security! This is a war on us. They use 911 as a cover to take away our rights, shred the Constitution-because nobody elected them and they’re going to get away with as much as they can in the short time they have. They are using the 3000 who died that day as the despicable immoral cover to take away our rights, drill in Alaska and all the rest of it. In their hearts, Americans know what’s right and what’s fair and they don’t like a lot of what’s going on. They have no vehicle, no leadership.

Nat. The democratic leadership has been silent on the USA Patriot Act, on the FBI listening in to detainee conversations w/ their lawyers. We’re not getting any Congressional leadership that means anything in terms of the constitution.

Michael. One librarian saved my book. She did it on December 1, 2001. Dec 1, 1955 was the day that one woman refused to give up her seat on the bus. The power of one individual is very strong. We’ve been told all our lives that we don’t matter, why beat our head against the wall. Thank God you [booksellers and librarians] exist!

[Please see related stories at, and especially Michael Ruppert’s very disturbing 911 conspiracy chronology at For more coverage of past and present BEAs, please see several articles in the Publishing section of Down to Business magazine,

Transcribed by Shel Horowitz, author of Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First and other books.